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Review: Billingham Pola Stowaway as camera bag

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Today’s breed of small, high-quality cameras needs a bag to match. The Tom Bihn Ristretto, admirable for cosseting a MacBook Air or iPad, is lacking in padding when it comes to delicate photo gear, so I was on the prowl for something light and effective. Especially so since for this year’s long summer vacation I decided to travel very light. A borrowed Leica X2 with its fixed focal length lens allows no temptation to carry a stock of just-in-case lenses.

To match this miniature setup I took the made-in-England Billingham Pola Stowaway. Billingham, a family-owned company in the Black Country, was originally famous for fishing bags. The company has now earned an enviable reputation among professional photographers for its range of high-quality camera system bags, ranging upwards in size from the Small Hadley (which I also own for my Leica M system).

Man bag

The Pola Stowaway is more man bag than camera bag. But it turns out to be near ideal for housing a small camera such as the Leica X1/2 (with attached viewfinder, surprisingly), and the likes of the Nikon 1, Canon G12, Sony NEX series (but not with a large lens) and the Fuji X100. Think pancake lenses. If your camera is a tiny point-and-shoot you could probably also accommodate the kitchen sink.

This is a very high-quality fabric and leather confection that looks great without shouting that it conceals an expensive camera. It can be worn crossways over the shoulder and the camera is easy to extract when needed. The central compartment, lined with an attractive olive-green nylon (on the black version), has just enough padding to keep the camera snug and safe from bangs.

Beware zip

Unlike with purpose-made camera bags, which generally avoid exposed zips, the zip on the Pola’s main compartment is a potential hazard if you are careless in dragging out the camera. It’s best to use two hands and hold the zip to one side so you avoid any chance of a scratch.

This, though, is about the only shortcoming of the Pola Stowaway. The little bag, which measures 7x3x8¼in overall, has a number of extra compartments to provide lots of storage. At the back is full-length open pocket suitable for maps or guide books or, even, a Kindle. There are two fabric belt loops on the outside of this pocket so you can attach to a belt instead of using the shoulder strap.

At either side, below the strap attachment rings, are small open compartments just about big enough for two fingers. They are good for storing pens, earphones and small accessories such as a lens cap or SD card.

The front of the bag has three compartments. A zipped pouch sits on top of the front flap (approximately 6½x2½in) and is just big enough to handle an iPhone 4S. Under the flap is a larger pouch, about 6x7in in size. On the left-hand size of this inner pouch is a 6in-deep vertically-zipped compartment which extends the full width of the bag.

Buckles

The heavy duty leather buckles for the carrying strap loops and the front flap all have two connected holes: The larger slips over the metal pillar and the smaller allows the the buckle to be pulled down on the pillar for security.

This is traditional saddlery stuff and a far cry from the plastic buckles found on most bags these days. A word of warning, though: It is advisable to make sure the shoulder strap buckles are properly secured on the smaller hole because, if not, the strap can easily become detached and could make the bag vulnerable to a snatch-and-run thief.

The webbing shoulder strap is only one inch wide but is comfortable to wear, bearing in mind the small size of the bag and the resulting limited weight. You can buy a leather shoulder attachment from Billingham but I wouldn’t have thought it necessary.

The main inner compartment has no pouches or other facilities for storing camera accessories or lenses. Billingham does sell its SuperFlex inserts as accessories but check the dimensions because the Pola is a very small bag; I suspect these inserts are intended mainly for the larger camera bags.

Remember, the Pola is not made for photographic gear, it is more a general-purpose small shoulder bag. Because of this is lacks any form of weather protection on the opening of the main compartment and, in very heavy rain, the zip is going to leak. It’s just a matter of taking normal precautions adn using common sense. Fortunately, here in Greece it doesn’t rain in the summer, so weather protection has not been an issue.

The Pola is best suited to cameras with fixed lenses, although it is just about capable of housing a Leica M9 fitted with one of the smaller lenses such as the 28mm Elmarit or 35mm Summicron.

  The Pola comes in khaki/tan in addition to the black shown in the main picture          by Mike Evans, 10 September 2012
The Pola comes in khaki/tan in addition to the black shown in the main picture by Mike Evans, 10 September 2012

Good choice

All in all, the Billingham Pola Stowaway is an excellent choice if you want a high-quality but unobtrusive little bag to house your camera in safety. In general I prefer not to use neck straps on smaller cameras, up to and including the Leica M9 in size; instead I use a wrist strap such as the Barton1972 Braidy and store the camera in a shoulder bag when not in use. For this, the Pola is idea.

The Pola Stowaway comes in two colours, black fabric with black leather or khaki/tan. Recommended price in the UK is £95.83 plus tax.